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Friday, January 27, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Inside a Cartel Smuggling Operation into West Texas

OJINAGA, Mexico – The nine Central Americans filed single-file from a Mexican customs building at the Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge and out onto the street with no food, no plan and the heavy burden of bad luck.

The U.S. Border Patrol had caught them on a ranch about 80 or 100 miles inside Texas following a six-day wilderness trek and, under the so-called Title 42 pandemic-containment policy now being applied mainly to single adults, immediately deported them almost to square one. Now, a gambit to achieve American dreams as illegal workers, for which the eight Guatemalans and one Salvadoran each paid cartel smugglers $11,000 in borrowed family and friend money ($12,000 for the Salvadoran) was a total loss.

The immigrants felt dejected and ruined by the bankruptcy of an endeavor that succeeded for everyone else they knew: cousins, neighbors, friends, a sister. Short of a second big smuggling fee, most said they’d return to home countries.

“I go back to my country because I try already and I don’t want to try no more,” said the El Salvadoran Jose Canas, 23, who had planned to join a brother in San Francisco.

Setting aside their feelings over sunk investments, their Texas captures and quick expulsions provide a rare inside look at a long-haul smuggling industry that is now booming far outside public awareness in West Texas. As I reported from that overlooked area of the southern border, a cartel-controlled conveyer belt greatly expanded after what one of the La Linea smugglers described as Joe Biden’s “la invitacion” to the world’s aspiring immigrants.

It now moves thousands of largely young single adults into America through here sight unseen because they are caught and returned more often along other parts of the border while family units and unaccompanied minors are ushered almost straight in under Biden policies.

Border Patrol agents in Texas estimate that the single adult illegal immigrants now paying for these smuggler-guided backpacking journeys through Big Bend country succeed at a rate as high as 80 or 90 percent because so few agents are deployed.

I happened to be on hand in Ojinaga with an interpreter at the moment the nine young men filed off the bridge from their Border Patrol expulsions and into the street. Over hamburgers and Cokes I purchased for them at a local food stall, the immigrants described a smuggling process that successfully transports so many others of their countries and from around the world through Big Bend country into interior America.

A Cartel Cold-Call Sales Force Roaming Central America

Although these nine immigrants formed an ad hoc brotherhood during their trip, they did not know one another prior to their U.S. gambit; all said that “agentes,” or agents, of Mexico’s highly lethal La Linea drug cartel, which controls drug and human experts along the Big Bend swath of U.S. border, found them separately on the streets of their disparate cities, towns and villages.

Their corroborating descriptions of this activity shows that at least this Mexican drug cartel has deployed a cold-call sales force throughout Central America, at least. One of several indications the effort is organized is that prices were the same $11,000 in different cities and towns, an extra thousand for the Salvadoran for reasons unknown.

The cartel salesmen found rich, predisposed fodder in Central America – word was already everywhere that Joe Biden was letting everyone in, and everyone knew someone who reaped the rewards recently, so salesmen’s claims had merit.

The cartel salesmen easily sold them U.S. travel packages on the largely true promise that their organization would get them to whichever U.S. city they wanted to go, whereas cartels operating in other areas had far inferior track records with Title 42.

It is no coincidence that the nine all ranged in age from 19 to 32 because these smuggling routes through Big Bend Sector, with its known absence of Border Patrol agents and high entry success rate, require physical stamina.

One of the Guatemalans said the salesman simply approached him while he was walking down a street in his hometown.

“The guy came up and said, ‘You look young and in good health. How would you like to go to the U.S. and work?’”

The salesman promised he could get the young man over the border successfully even if the trip wouldn’t be easy. The trip would be by foot and take four or five days, they were all told, but would be worth the effort in the end.

In considering the offers, most of the immigrants said they were well aware that this organization had followed through with others they knew.

“With God’s blessing, they got there with the same smugglers,” one said. “Some went with others.”

CIS asked each of the immigrants how they raised the $11,000 price, a fortune in Guatemala and El Salvador. Each explained that family and friends chipped in whatever they had on the premise that they would pay the money back quickly with the U.S. wages they would earn. Several said their families came up short but that they borrowed the money from others in their villages. None indebted themselves to La Linea.

A Detailed Printed Itinerary

Each immigrant was expected to get himself from his hometown to the north-central Mexican metropolis of Ciudad Chihuahua, a three-hour drive to Ojinaga.

Once the money was paid, the salesmen handed each immigrant “Las Ojas,” printed itinerary sheets unique to the region those agents represented. The itinerary sheets contained information about which buses in hometowns they could board, departure times, destinations, and transfer buses at those destinations. They also listed which buses they needed to take to which area of the Mexican border they would need to cross.

It’s worth noting that the Biden administration recently placed a significant bet on a Trump-era Mexican national guard deployment in deep southern Mexico to stop and return Central American immigrants coming through from Guatemala. The Biden administration cut a deal for Mexico to maintain and expand it as a means to slow the mass migration crisis. Mexico promised to crack down on the buses too.

Somehow, their buses got through all the roadblocks. A simple matter, many are paying bribes to national guardsmen who board at the checkpoints, as CIS has reported.

Each of the nine immigrants, independently, followed the itinerary instruction sheet until they reached Chihuahua City and, at the bus station, called a phone number provided. A cartel representative then met each one at the station, took the itinerary back and seized their cell phone. All were allowed to keep their money and identification.

The taking of cell phones puzzled the immigrants and raised red flags but all accepted the loss of communication to families back home and in the United States. The move seemed designed to prevent them from reporting to anyone which part of the border they were going to from Chihuahua, a major transportation hub from which roads led to many parts of the U.S. southern border.

One immigrant said the cartel guide later told them Border Patrol could key in on the location of cell phone signals once a journey started.

At the Chihuahua bus station, the cartel representative told each to board a particular bus to Ojinaga about three hours’ bus ride and then use a pay phone to call a number again.

Ojinaga municipal police officer Manuel Onterveros confirmed to CIS much of what the immigrants said happens from Chihuahua, with one difference. Lately, Mexican federal police have begun boarding the Chihuahua buses and arresting immigrants as part of the new crackdown deal with Biden. So now, the cartel has switched to having the immigrants hire Uber drivers from Chihuahua to Ojinaga, Officer Onterveros said.

All nine of these immigrants, however they arrived, called the provided number on a pay phone once reaching Ojinaga. An operative picked them up and drove each to a local motel where six or 10 migrants might end up in any one room. CIS saw hotel rooms outfitted with 10 tightly fitted beds inside.

That’s where the nine first met one another. The first ones stayed for several nights as new ones fished out of the Ojinaga bus station joined them in the hotel room until it filled. The room cost was on the cartel, part of the package.

While the immigrants waited, they were outfitted with “vestidos,” clothing for the journey, and several days of food. Nothing else very fancy, a thin blanket for sleeping on the trail, good enough boots, “mochilas” – ruck sacks – and water jugs.

Once the rooms could hold no more immigrants, a convoy of cartel trucks and vehicles came. The immigrants were cleared out the rooms for incoming arrivals and put aboard. The nine from their hotel room stayed together. They were loaded up in a large pickup truck with a camper shell over the bed and were driven to a spot across from the remote golf resort Texas town of Lajitas.

The drivers of all the vehicles ordered at least several dozen out with a cartel foot guide, who led them over the Rio Grande’s knee-deep waters through an area where they knew Border Patrol was absent most of the time. This large group headed north from there.

The ultimate goal: Interstate 10, some 120 miles away as the crow flies.

“Someone was supposed to pick us up,” said Pedro Ceto, 32, of Guatemala, and drive them into a big city where they could blend in and make their own ways.

Ceto was heading to Chicago, where he had a wife and young children when he lived in the city illegally for five years. He was deported last year when a police officer pulled him over for driving without a license, he claimed.

“I just want to be with my children,” Ceto said. “But we never got picked up. It never happened.”

This Doomed Journey North

The immigrants had no idea where they were or where they were going. They would follow the guide all day and sleep at night in their blankets – no fires lest they be spotted.

They resupplied from gallon jugs of water and food apparently stashed on the route ahead of time, a sign of just how organized the La Linea smuggling routes are.

Never once did any in the group see a Border Patrol agent, although they did see a drone flying overhead and hid. Border Patrol staffing keyed to lower immigration levels normal for this region does not appear to have kept pace with new circumstances. That’s become a chief competitive advantage fueling the cartel’s booming side business.

But even for cartels, good help can be hard to find these days. On the fourth morning, the guide told the group he’d be back in just a little while. He never returned.

The long caravan of migrants fractured into smaller groups and disbanded. The nine decided to stick together. With no idea where to go or how to replenish water, the group wandered aimlessly through the wilderness for three more days until they spotted a ranch.

Driven by thirst, they asked a woman ranch owner for food and water. She called Border Patrol while fetching it. And while they were resting, Border Patrol showed up.

Ranchers report a tremendous, historic increase in such incursions onto their lands by lost or needy migrants.

Shelly Means, a rancher outside of Valentine, Texas, whose property these nine migrants would not have crossed, said that’s perfectly understandable and that she calls Border Patrol all the time nowadays.

“Maybe in the last four years, we’ve seen eight illegals,” Means said. “But then, after our new administration, they’d pick 40 of them off us three weeks ago and another 40-plus two weeks ago. Since January, I think they’ve probably picked up 200 off of us.”

All of this illegal stranger traffic – plus quite a bit of property damage to a guest house – has driven a sense of insecurity her family has never felt until after the new president’s January inauguration. Now her family carries guns at all times and calls Border Patrol to come pick them up.

“We still have a heart, but I don’t want them on my place,” she said. “If we have some, I call the Border Patrol and go out and ask them if they’re hungry, infirm, what they need – clothes, shoes, and then I just pray that the Border Patrol gets here quickly.”


The Border Patrol agents who picked up the nine immigrants didn’t waste time. The agents dispensed with the rucksacks and camping gear, then drove the group straight to the international bridge at Presidio. They ordered the group over it into Ojinago at about 4 p.m., where CIS first met them.

All professed extreme fright about being on the street in this town once nighttime fell, having been told that if La Linea spots them, they’ll be kidnapped and held for ransom.

CIS bought the group a meal of hamburgers and soft drinks on the street and, while they waited for the cook, provided cell phones so that the immigrants could report home – for the first time since their own phones were taken in Chihuahua at least 10 days earlier.

“I’m alive. Yes, I’m alive,” one of the immigrants was overheard telling someone. All arranged with relatives in the United States or Guatemala to quickly wire them money so they could get out of town the next morning.

Such was the fear of this cartel that all nine eyed every vehicle that drove past with wariness and concern. They pleaded with CIS to drive them to a local hotel as a means to get them off the street as dusk was falling.

“My family has nothing left to give after this trip,” one said. “If they kidnap me and ask them for money, I’ll be killed.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@hstoday.us. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Todd Bensman
Todd Bensman is the Center for Immigration Studies' Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book "America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration," due in February 2021 from Bombardier Books. Prior to joining CIS in August 2018, Bensman led homeland security intelligence efforts for nine years in the public sector. Bensman’s body of work with policy and intelligence operations is founded on more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist covering national security topics, with particular focus on the Texas border. In 2009, Bensman transitioned from journalism to join the Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he managed teams of intelligence analysts that worked in concert with federal homeland security and U.S. Intelligence Community agencies to identify and mitigate terrorism threats. From the State of Texas fusion center for nine years, he designed and directed collection operations that fed into the Intelligence Community and prompted or advanced federal counterterrorism investigations. Among his original programs was a specialized effort to help federal partners disrupt human smuggling networks transporting migrants to the U.S. land border from countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active. Prior to his government experience, Bensman worked on staff for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers, covering the FBI, federal law enforcement and serving on investigative teams.

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